Words for Thought…Engagement and Choice

Nov 13th, 2018 | Category: Columns, Words for Thought
By Peter Pohlhammer

Editor’s Note: LEJ’s long-term General Editor, Peter Pohlhammer, is about to make a courageous and meaningful career change. In Spring 2019 Peter will enter Congress Park School in LaGrange Park,, not as a parent, not as a grandparent, but as a student teacher. In fall 2019, Peter will join the ranks of teachers planning to make a difference in the lives of children. Over the past several years, Peter has readied himself for this dramatic career change by taking CUC courses in the Master of Arts in Teaching program to become an elementary-school teacher. Over those same years he has thought much about his own philosophy of teaching and learning. The following Words for Thought come out of those many thoughts. As a parent, grandparent, and budding teacher, Peter’s words hold wisdom that each of us can consider.

I am looking at education as a returning-adult student, one who is soon to make an intentional career change. The philosophy of education course challenged me to look at education from a variety of perspectives, some familiar, some new. My classmates and I made presentations on Socratic Idealism, Rousseau’s Realism, and Dewey’s Pragmatism. Boiled down to essentials, each of these philosophies sought to produce the most well-rounded citizens; participants in society, culture and government. Certainly, Socrates and Rousseau put the society ahead of the individual with their ideas on education. They were more concerned about what the individual could contribute to the community than what they might take from it. Dewey seemed less concerned about the individual’s contributions than whether the individual could live a fulfilling life in their particular corner of the community. Each of these philosophies offers something of value to any discussion of education, but none of them envisioned the wonderfully vast and complex web of social, cultural, and governmental structures in which 21st-century educators in the United States find themselves enmeshed.

What is education? It seems to me that any discussion of a philosophy of education should start with a description or definition of education. So what is it? A referral to the Merriam-Webster app on my phone gives the following definitions:

1. The act or process of teaching someone especially in a school, college, or university;

2. The knowledge, skill, and understanding that you get from attending a school, college, or university;

3. A field of study that deals with the methods and problems of teaching.

These definitions all seem to describe the learning or study that happens in the formal setting of a school. But, what of a less formal style of education? We’ve all heard of the School Of Hard Knocks. But in a less flippant vein, we have all received a less formal, but equally valuable education from family, friends, and various members of the neighborhoods we called home as children, and the ones we live in now. I believe that an education, formal or informal, prepares us for life. Our less formal education from the School Of Life instructs us more in basic survival, while our formal education gives us the tools to live a fulfilled life beyond mere survival, or it should at any rate.

So let’s look at the formal side of education briefly. What should a formal education do for us? I believe that a formal education should start with some basic “how-to’s.” We start by learning to read, then to write. Next we learn the use of numbers. To the processes of reading, writing and computing we add the process of gathering and remembering data. We learn new vocabulary, and details of the history of our culture and country. We learn basic geography, our place in the world and relationship to it. As our store of data increases we begin to learn some rules and guidelines for storing, organizing, and using it; that is we begin to learn grammar, mathematical functions, logic, alphabetical order, etc. Part and parcel to the whole process of reading, writing, and data collection is, or should be, the exercise of creativity, spontaneity, individual expression and originality of thought. In the long run, education is less about building a storehouse of knowledge than it is about learning how to learn. Our education never stops, but at some point in life each person must become their own guide through the process. He and she must know how to seek out people—whether live or in the form of books, TV, computer, etc.—from whom they might learn the things that they require for continued fulfillment.

My philosophy of education can be summed up in one word: engagement. It sounds simple, but let’s dig into it a little. In that one condition I think we find the common ground for several of the 20th-century educational psychologists discussed in my recent classes. Political writings aside, the contributions of these psychologists and educators are so important that one cannot ignore them. Vygotsky developed the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development, that area of proximity between a teacher and student where learning happens. Safe space is required in the ZPD. The space must be safe both physically and emotionally. Once an emotional connection is established between the teacher and student, the stage is set for the student’s growth and development. Dewey advocated for attention to a child’s place in his or her family, and the family’s place in society. His philosophy called for close observation of the student as well as a curriculum-and-teaching approach that would take into account a child’s cultural surroundings and information learned from those observations. Montessori described small class sizes, right-sized furniture and implements, simple responsibilities designed for children, and a teacher’s ability to communicate one-to-one with a child. All of these describe the very essence of engagement between student and teacher, a certain requirement if education is to happen. The basic concept of the zone of proximal development requires engagement. To make the kind of observations required by the philosophies of Dewey and Montessori, teachers must engage with their students. The student’s development can’t happen without it.

Engagement of this sort doesn’t just happen. A number of conditions are required for full engagement to take root and blossom. First and foremost, as mentioned previously, engagement requires a safe space. It goes without saying that the student must feel physically safe, but more important is the student’s emotional safety. How many times have we kept thoughts or ideas to ourselves because we didn’t feel emotionally safe in voicing them, that we might be ridiculed, or made to feel foolish? In the Zone of Proximal Development, an emotional connection is of primary importance. That connection cannot be established unless and until a child feels emotionally safe. Teachers must be able to show that they genuinely care for each student. They must find something to like in each student, not necessarily an easy thing to do. Engagement requires the teacher’s ability to make keen observations of student preferences, behaviors, and abilities. They must be able to observe and determine different students’ styles of learning.

Hand in hand with observation is the ability to respond appropriately and proportionally to a student’s needs and actions. A teacher must be able to take care of a student’s physical needs as far as the educational system will allow them. Physical needs can impair the learning process. Hunger, cold, loss, family disruptions, and a student’s sense of a lack of safety are all things that can put stress on any teacher/student connection. To the extent that they can, teachers need to relieve the stress caused by things of this nature, or engagement will fail, and development and learning will cease. Finally, encouragement is important for maintaining a connection and a sense of engagement. Students come into the system with varying degrees of confidence and self esteem. Well-placed encouragement will strengthen the bond of engagement and develop a student’s ability to work through problems, find answers to difficult questions, and build their sense of individuality.

The second part of my philosophy is the idea that there are no mistakes, only choices. “What are you talking about?” I hear you ask. “Of course there are mistakes.” Let me explain. Among my leisure pursuits is that of knitting. Yes, knitting. I’ve been a knitter since I was ten years old and begged my mother to teach me. It was one of those activities in which we engaged one-on-one. I stuck with it and eventually became a master knitter. I’ve taught others to knit, and in the course of those instructional settings I heard numerous exclamations of disappointment over “mistakes.” Over the course of time I came to realize that a dropped, looped, split, or doubled stitch, may constitute a “mistake” in one instance, but can be a beautiful pattern in another. I began to encourage my knitting students to think in terms of making choices rather than mistakes. When they created something that would have normally been a mistake, I had them think about choices they could make in that moment. They could leave it alone or choose to change it, not correct it, but change it. In this way we were no longer thinking in the negative, but we were still mindful of the consequences of each possible choice. Maybe the student would change the affected stitches to the regular pattern they were working, maybe they would leave them alone and they would become part of the finished piece. Or, maybe they would choose to change the stitch pattern to incorporate more of the new stitches. In any case the decision, whatever it was, would come from a place of positive thought, not negative reaction.

What does this have to do with education? Everything. Some of the most important discoveries in history came from so-called mistakes. Goodyear vulcanized his first rubber accidentally when he left a laboratory oven on overnight unintentionally, with a rubber sample inside it. Ivory® soap happened when a Procter and Gamble employee let a batch of soap over-mix while he went to lunch. The air mixed into the liquid, causing the soap to float after molding and hardening. Procter and Gamble could have scrapped the formula and process and fired the employee for the mistake, but they made a choice to market the product and eventually made millions. “Mistake” and “failure” are negative words that can cause the students who commit them to lose faith in themselves. When they make enough of them they can give up on themselves. The negative emotions they generate can erode that sense of engagement that a teacher has worked so hard to create. When a student has turned in three paragraphs of material that do not show their writing skills to best advantage, their teacher can talk about mistakes in the work or they can talk about other choices the student might have made. If we can rid ourselves of the concept of mistakes or perfection, correct or incorrect, we can begin to build confidence in our students and help them see their worth. It becomes easier for us to guide our students through challenges of learning that may be language-based, cognitive, sight-based, physically difficult, or stem from any number of causes. I firmly believe that choosing not to use the negative language of mistakes and errors helps to build that sense of engaged connection that is so vital to the classroom.

Learning/education can’t happen without an engaged connection. Do you remember times from your own past in which you had to listen to a lecture from a teacher or parent? Were you ever in a class in which the subject was of little interest? Did a fire truck pull up across the street and distract your interest in the talk? Were you in trouble with your mother or father over some infraction of the house rules? Were you really cold and just wanted to find a sweater or jacket?

On the other hand, how did you feel about the time when someone sat down with you by yourself to read a story? Or, bake a batch of cookies? Or, help you disassemble your old beater’s engine to make some needed repairs? In which of these scenarios did learning happen? Change any of the factors discussed above and one risks disrupting that sense of engagement in which learning happens. Pass a child through an educational system in which they rarely feel engaged or connected to their teachers and our culture risks turning out students who have not learned how to learn and have little interest in learning beyond what they need to know to survive. They have been cheated out of the chance for learning how to experience that sense of fulfillment for which we all strive. LEJ